With Kanye West and Arcade Fire, Coachella Offers a Revenge of the New

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Younger talent takes back this year's festival from reunions and nostalgia bands. Why?

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Reuters/David Moir/Danny Moloshok/Lucas Jackson/Tomas Bravo


In 2008, Jane's Addiction front man, alt-rock entrepreneur and shamanistic on-stage wriggler Perry Farrell delivered a grim prediction for American music festivals.

"You give it five years, it's going to be scary," he told David Browne in SPIN magazine. "In the past, that great new group would headline Lollapalooza. Now people are going back as far as the '60s and early '80s to book the headliners. What does that tell you? It's like global warming, man. The water reserve is getting smaller.'"

At the time, it was easy to understand his concern. Three years after converting his band's iconic traveling rock extravaganza Lollapalooza into an annual weekend blowout in Chicago, the summer music festival market had glutted with more than a dozen major events. Mega-concerts in San Francisco, New Jersey, Michigan, Colorado, and elsewhere had sprung up, each a multi-day experience boasting hefty ticket prices, high-profile headlining acts, and swarms of lesser-known performers. Meanwhile, a vital resource for the industry appeared to be dwindling: bands that could attract 'palooza-sized audiences.

That year, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif.—arguably the originator of the model that Lollapalooza and others adopted—boasted a staggeringly nostalgia-heavy lineup. Prince, Roger Waters, and Portishead, each legends of past decades, got top billing. Legacy acts like the Verve, Kraftwerk, the Breeders, and Love and Rockets took the lion's share of buzz among bands on the festival's undercard. Milquetoast surf strummer Jack Johnson stood as the only headliner that could be considered "current," and he was slated to vibe out at four other similarly sized festivals that summer. Year-over-year Coachella ticket sales fell by 30,000.

The reviews out of Indio in 2008 were rapturous, but as critic Bill Wyman (a contributor to TheAtlantic.com) asked, "Didn't I see this show in 1995?" And in an Idolator post titled "So, Um, Who's Going To Headline Coachella In 2013?" Maura Johnston pondered, "Are there any acts who have come up since the turn of the millennium who can headline a 50,000-capacity festival?"

While we're still a few years out from 2013, it looks like the answer may turn out to be "yes." The headliners for Coachella 2011, which starts today, are Kings of Leon, Arcade Fire, Kanye West, and the Strokes—all artists whose rise to stardom came in the last decade. The top spots for Coachella 2010 (Jay-Z, Muse, and Gorillaz) also went to far fresher performers than past headliners like Paul McCartney or the Cure. Even the most-talked-about reunion at this year's festival is of the relatively youthful Death from Above 1979, whose debut dropped in 2004 and have only been on hiatus since 2006. Despite the dearth of big-name legacy acts, this year's Coachella sold out in record time.

How to explain the apparent pendulum swing back to newness? Has the reunion well dried up? Maybe, though it's not like this year's festival entirely forgoes revivalism. Rock en Español pioneers Caifanes, the original members of 1980s Clash spinoff Big Audio Dynamite, and the recently invigorated new-wavers Duran Duran will each take the stage.

The bursting of the national festival bubble may also play a role in Coachella's recent commercial success (most of the competitors launched in '08 have since died). But it appears that people will pay premium prices see young, cool bands after all.

The circa-2008 state-of-the-festival handwriting from critics implied that modern music could no longer produce "big," credible bands that could unite Coachella's alternative-leaning audience. The fan-fragmenting powers of the Internet or the proliferation of indie rock's don't-try-hard ethos could be blamed. But the truth was it was a strange year, and the headliners of the future were still gestating.

If this weekend's Coachella slate teaches anything, it's that pop culture abhors a vacuum. For a while now—say, since the late-2009 "decade in review" listicle dump—music culture's collective subconscious seems to have been sorting out what to think about the first decade of the 2000s, and in doing so has crowned heroes. Most of this year's headliners have seen major laurel-burnishing lately: Arcade Fire landed a No. 1 album and a surprise Grammy, Kanye West broke the 8-year drought for new Pitchfork 10.0 albums and the critical unanimity the score implies, the Strokes were received as born-again rock saviors after just a few years away from the spotlight. None of these acts were "small" before, but any walls on the expected scope of their appeal have been demolished—these are the artists that music fans hope, on some level, can rebuild the monoculture.

We can argue about which of the achievements by these bands are truly meaningful—the Arcade Fire's chart win came from lowered industry expectations, for example—but there's little denying that it feels as though we're in a period of serial coronations. Take the wistful appreciation pieces accompanying the retirement of LCD Soundsystem, a band that seemed like a cult act until it filled Madison Square Garden for its goodbye. Or note how White Stripes boxed sets are already being planned now that Jack and Meg have officially split. Is there any doubt we'll be paying to see these groups, reuniting as headliners at Coachella in the barely distant future?

This year's Coachella will be a test of whether the headliners deserve their new place in the canon. But they don't really need the test. Arcade Fire's live show has been hailed as arena-ready since the band's early days. Kanye has played to bigger crowds than this. Kings of Leon and Strokes leapt from indie hype catchers to rock-radio conquerors years ago. Already, then, this year's Coachella feels like a victory lap, rather than an arrival, for the top performers. It looks like Farrell's fears of a talent crisis were unfounded; he can take a glance down the bill for this weekend and rest assured that the water reserve is always replenishing.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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